A Nation of Nations

Review of 17A Keong Saik Road by Charmaine Leung (Singapore: Ethos Books, 2017)
by Brian Haman

In 2017, Lonely Planet, one of the world’s largest travel guide book publishers, listed Singapore’s Keong Saik Road among its "Top 10 must-see places in Asia for 2017," describing the formerly "crime-riddled red-light district" as a reinvented "poster-child for hip 'New Singapore'." The guidebook’s justification was a predictable mishmash of bland marketing hype and monocultural placelessness: "Behind the beautiful colonial and art-deco buildings you’ll discover the best of Singapore’s famed dining scene: fabulous rooftop views and super-slick cocktail bars draw a trendy crowd. And then you can sleep it all off in a boutique hotel room." One could easily swap "Singapore" for Shanghai, Saigon, Hong Kong, or even Yangon with little, if any, consequence. Such is the gentrifying language of late-stage capitalism, with its insidious logic of cultural effacement and homogeneity in which the “new” and “hip” displace the old and necessarily unhip. To counter such false logic is why books like Charmaine Leung’s deeply felt memoir 17A Keong Saik Road are so necessary.

After living in Hong Kong for fifteen years, Leung decided one day to return to Singapore in search of home. Leung’s memoir is a record of that search. It tells a multigenerational story of women buffeted by circumstances largely beyond their control, and some of their own making, against the backdrop of twentieth-century Singapore. Leung grew up on the 'old' Keong Saik Road in the 1970s when it was a prominent red-light district in Chinatown. Her first-person narrative is based largely on her youthful experiences there, and on the memories of the many women whose frequently unhappy lives played out within the buildings that still line the now-fashionable Singapore street.

The story begins with Leung's mother Koon and her heartbreaking ordeal as a child from rural western Malaysia. Because Koon’s family was unable to care for yet another child, her father, who was uninterested in yet another daughter, committed the unconscionable act by selling his daughter for money. Koon was eventually taken to Singapore, where she was adopted by a woman called Yu Lin, renamed "Happy Jade," and brought to live with Yu Lin’s sibling, the domineering Yu Fu. Both middle-aged sisters ran an entertainment house with pei pa zai, or songstresses who sang Cantonese and Huangmei opera, played musical instruments, and rewarded their attentive male clients with sexual services. As Leung writes, "Mingling with pei pa zai and their male customers was how my mother spent her childhood…. It was in 17A Keong Saik Road where the soirees of jocund entertainment went on night after night." Leung herself spent her own childhood in similar circumstances, inheriting her mother’s brothel life as if it were a genetic trait.

Leung’s own experiences were, however, decidedly less deterministic, although, at times, no less fraught. Unlike her mother, who was forced to leave school in order to run the family business, Leung managed to complete her education, but often struggled with the consequences of her family’s absenteeism. As she writes, "The adults in my life were nowhere to be found – my mother was working in 17A, my father was still stuck in faraway Hong Kong, and Fei [her alcoholic caretaker] was usually half-asleep after drinking." Elsewhere, she laments, "The lack of a permanent male figure in my life was contrasted by too many inappropriate male figures on the streets of Keong Saik." These men lingered and leered or made inappropriate comments at the pre-pubescent Leung and her friend as they navigated their neighborhood’s streets:

We did not fully comprehend the implications of our circumstances with the men on the street then, but that was unquestionably harassment—sexual harassment in its primordial form, where two young girls were constantly bullied by lustful older men who made us feel vulnerable and threatened.

Plus ça change—even with our age’s increased awareness of male sexual harassment, such descriptive accounts of predatory and abusive male behavior shock and disgust.

What make Leung’s stories of her highly idiosyncratic upbringing particularly compelling are the intersecting lives of the many women that fill the pages of her book. In her dedication, she thanks her mother "and all the amazing women in my life who gave me the courage to tell this story." This story is as much about the second-class status of twentieth-century Singaporean women as it is about the shame (whether perceived or internalized) of Leung’s own upbringing as the daughter of a female brothel owner. Nonetheless, for the reader, there is a certain unknowability about Leung’s mother, perhaps due to filial piety’s insistence on discretion or the lack of information (or a combination of the two). As Leung admits, she learned a great deal about her mother, grandmother, grandaunt, and, indeed, the sufferings of women in early twentieth-century China through Auyoung Foon, a mother, widow, and family friend who had settled, suffered, but survived in Singapore. Leung, however, wisely sidesteps the temptation for representativeness, inclining instead towards Sontag’s imperative: "Sample, explore, revisit, choose, arrange, without claiming to have brought to the page a representative miscellany." In many respects, then, what Leung has accomplished is to have written a book about women in which they are not merely looked at (as they were in Keong Saik Road’s brothels), but rather seen and heard.

Not everything in this memoir is traumatic or depressing, though. Take, for instance, Leung’s celebratory appreciation of Chinese folklore and traditions, which she absorbed from the Chinese character of her streets:

This early immersion inculcated in me the curiosity and fascination for most things Chinese—the legendary tales of the gods: the histories of Chinese dynasties of emperors and their harems of beauties; the heroic accounts of warriors; and the captivating stories of Cantonese opera. These never cease to amaze me. …what I lacked in a conventional childhood was more than made up for by this extravaganza of rich Chinese culture.

Similarly, the sights and smells of Keong Saik Road and its surrounding streets physically nourished the young Leung. The foods of her childhood recur throughout the memoir as a marker of cultural memory. From the elderly woman in her sixties selling tau huay (sweet tofu dessert) from her wooden cart at six in the morning to the roving bicyclist hawking boot zai gou with chye poh (rice cakes with diced preserved radish), Leung’s evocative writing underscores the powerfully suggestive role that food plays in human memory. Amidst the changes wrought by time stands the architecture of memory in which, as Proust reminds us, l’odeur et la saveur restent encore longtemps.

For all of its courageousness, its affecting humanity, and its unflinching confrontation of emotional distress, the book is not without its imperfections. Leung’s transformative life in Hong Kong—so crucial to her development—is glossed over. An uncomfortable silence surrounds her mother’s own feelings about her childhood experiences. The account of Leung's father’s death feels out-of-sync with the rest of the narrative, despite its profound personal significance. And some incidents seem more episodic than essential. Highly distracting too are the numerous grammatical errors (at least seven by my count, including subject-verb agreement and missing prepositions). And in light of her plain style, Leung’s occasional Latinate word choices can jar, as when she writes of "a tongue-lashing gravid with vulgarities" or "the quiddity which made them unique individuals."

Nevertheless, such quibbles are easily overlooked because of Leung’s admirable compassion and generosity of spirit in what amounts to "heroic acts of remembering and retracing" (to borrow from Sontag). Before the hipsters and scenesters, before the glitzy boutique hotels and rooftop bars and "must-see" and "must-do" lists, Keong Saik Road buzzed and teemed with scores of southern Chinese immigrant women known as ma je who took vows of celibacy, with clan associations and their business, with wholesalers whose shops beat a mercantile drum by day and hummed to seductive songs plucked on the four-stringed pipa by pei pa zai by night. Here amidst this teeming plurality, this nation of nations, desperate women sold themselves to "troops of sailors and military men from the navy [who] descended upon the brothels to find their meat to assuage their sexual desires." Dutiful, somnambulant men with their 'Honey Wagons' collected buckets of human waste at dawn from houses without a flush sanitary system. 'Wolf Dogs' (the police) carried out random checks on brothels in a never-ending cat-and-mouse-game. And women raised their children as best as they could at a time when life was neither trendy nor hip, but honest and real in its persistent hardships and fleeting triumphs. In Charmaine Leung’s memoir, with its unadorned power of memory, such people and places and objects are heard and described and passed on, and Keong Saik Road is a richer place for her efforts.

Brian Haman is the Book Review and Interview Editor of The Shanghai Literary Review. His writing on Asian culture has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Japan Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Asian Review of Books, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, ArtAsiaPacific, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong Review of Books, Neocha, and elsewhere.